Humble Paddlefish Fulfills Southerners' Caviar Dreams
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
All photos by David R. Lutman for The New York Times
LOUISVILLE, Ky., July 19, 2003
While caviar might go with canapés, it does not usually go with y'all.
But tell that to Lewis Shuckman.
A plucky, compact vendor of fish, Mr. Shuckman spent years peddling southern paddlefish roe from his seafood shop in Louisville, knocking on doors of fancy restaurants and country clubs, asking anyone who would listen, "Y'all want some caviar?"
Noses were turned up, he says, and chef after chef dismissed his product as a far cry from "the gray pearls" of the Caspian Sea and just the eggs of some toothless, goofy-looking creature that swam the Mississippi.
But then things changed. Markedly. Pollution, over-fishing and corruption ravaged the once bountiful stocks of Caspian Sea sturgeon, mothers of famed sevruga, osetra and beluga caviar, a salty jam sometimes costing as much as $100 a spoonful. A recent Iranian report said 140 million prized sturgeon had disappeared.
Now, Mr. Shuckman and his paddlefish eggs are the toast of homegrown caviar aficionados, an industry growing as fast as a well-fed fingerling. Ten years ago, domestic caviar accounted for a sliver of American consumption. Today, some seafood experts say, the cheaper (though mushier) roe feeds 60 percent of the market.
The chef Wolfgang Puck calls the paddlefish eggs "the Chevrolet of caviar."
On Wednesday, in the briny holds of Shuckman's Fish Company, Mr. Shuckman played host to a delegation of Ukrainian fish farmers.
"Goot, Lewis, goot," said Igor Misevra, as he stuffed into his mouth a cracker slathered with Kentucky Spoonfish Caviar, Mr. Shuckman's trademarked product.
Recently, Ukrainian aquaculture experts paid a visit to Shuckman's Fish Company and Smokery in Louisville, Ky. Here, Oleg Lushchyk, left, sniffs a fish after it comes out of a smoker. At his right is Mr. Shuckman, president of the company.
Antonina Slobodchuk, another visitor who had come to America to learn the ins and out of the fish business, said, "It tastes like Russian caviar, but the way he presents it, with all that excitement, it's so, so, American."
Mr. Shuckman tipped back a bottle of vodka with his new Ukrainian friends and beamed.
It is hard to measure the domestic caviar boom, because unlike that for catfish, cod, tuna or salmon, the caviar trade is small and not extensively tracked.
But over the past several years, dozens of fishermen and seafood sellers in Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Georgia and Tennessee have jumped into the market for the slimy, precious treat that nearly everyone has heard of but few people buy. Conservationists now worry that the paddlefish, a dinosaur-age filter feeder with a head shaped like a giant Popsicle stick, may need to be protected like the sturgeon.
Tom Cassidy, president of the American Seafood Company, a major distributor in Memphis, said paddlefish roe had taken off as a low-cost alternative to Caspian caviar. It usually sells for $10 to $20 an ounce, compared with $50 an ounce for the least expensive imports.
"I'd say 60 percent of the market is now American," Mr. Cassidy said. "Take your classy wedding. Folks will get a pound of paddlefish caviar for the spread and maybe four ounces of beluga for the bride and groom."
As Mr. Shuckman and his wife (and co-owner) put out crackers and caviar, Oleg Lushchyk, at right, asks about the canning process.
John Fiorillo, editor of The Wave, a seafood industry newsletter, said the roe from paddlefish (also called spoonfish) was one of the fastest growing sectors of the seafood market.
"Five years ago, if you said spoonfish caviar, people would say, `What the hell was that?' " Mr. Fiorillo said. "Now, I'm seeing it all over the place."
Mr. Puck sprinkles paddlefish roe on his smoked salmon pizza.
"It's not the same as what comes from the Caspian, but it's good," he said.
Right now, great fortunes are being built on paddlefish eggs. As Mike Kelley stood on the banks of the Tennessee River, near his home in rural Savannah, Tenn., he recalled all the things he has pulled out of the water: a Lincoln Navigator, an addition to his home, a custom-built summer cabin.
"That bend up there has been good to me," Mr. Kelley said, pointing to a curve of the river where he has netted thousands of paddlefish. He and his wife, Vickie, sell the roe out of the back of their house. After The Wall Street Journal called Kelley's Katch Caviar the "new egg in town," so many people placed orders, the Kelleys enlisted neighbors to fill out FedEx forms.
Most people around here still think fish eggs belong on hooks.
"When I first brought caviar to a church luncheon on deviled eggs, people said, `Eewww, what's that?' " Vickie Kelley said.
Paddlefish converts say the taste is similar to more expensive Russian caviar, but the eggs are half the size of some, about two millimeters around compared with the buckshot-size, four-millimeter beluga.
And, strictly speaking, for purists the term "caviar" is like "Champagne." It should be used only to refer to roe from sturgeon, not other fish. There are a few sturgeon farms in California, where fish farmers are producing true caviar.
Armen Petrossian, president of the International Caviar Importers Association in Paris, said paddlefish eggs had a muddy aftertaste.
"He is taking the earth with all the rest he eats," Mr. Petrossian said of the paddlefish, "giving the eggs a little taste of the earth."
But even caviar snobs are easily fooled. Five importers were arrested in April and accused of passing off American roe as Russian caviar. Then there were Franklin and Carolyn Hale, a Tennessee couple sentenced to prison the next month for various charges, including catching paddlefish out of season. They said they had got the fish from a fish farm, but federal agents spotted net marks.
The biggest caviar arrest so far was in October 1998, when United States customs agents seized 1,000 pounds of tuxedo grade beluga at Kennedy Airport. The shipment had a street value of over a $1 million. The ring was led by Andrzej Lepkowski, then deputy chief of police of Warsaw, and included Polish airline employees.
Environmental groups are alarmed about decreasing sturgeon stocks, though some caviar dealers say the numbers are not so clear. In a 2000 report, Iranian officials estimated that the Caspian Sea's sturgeon population plummeted from 200 million in 1990 to 60 million five years later. Caviar Emptor, a sturgeon advocacy organization, said beluga sturgeon numbers had decreased by 90 percent in the past 20 years.
Many people blame increased pollution and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which once tightly regulated caviar production. In 1998, strict international controls were put on sturgeon exports, which led to a spiral of higher caviar prices, more smuggling, more controls, even higher prices, even more smuggling, and so on. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing beluga sturgeon, one of the largest fish that can live in fresh water, as an endangered species. That could lead to an outright ban on the gray pearls.
These days, the focus has shifted to paddlefish, a distant cousin of the sturgeon. Drawing data from state fish reports, law enforcement and conversations with fishermen, the wildlife group Traffic has concluded that American paddlefish, which have survived for 150 million years, are now in trouble.
"There's no question that the declining catch in the Caspian Sea has increased the pressure on North American species to fill the caviar void," said Craig Hoover, a Traffic official. "They are not on the brink of extinction, but they are threatened."
Mr. Shuckman tips back a bottle of vodka brought by one of the Ukrainian visitors, Gennady Ryandskyy.
Limits on paddlefish roe could end the gravy days at seafood businesses like Shuckman's.
Mr. Shuckman, 48, first tasted the little gray eggs in 1994, when a catfish supplier introduced him to it. Now, he is selling 800 pounds a year, at $15 an ounce.
He is careful not to pack the tins himself, he said, "because I got all these crackers and capers around, and it gets dangerous. I say, `One for the customer, one for me, one for the customer, one for me.' "
The other day, his 16 Ukrainian guests polished off a five-pound bowl (and three bottles of vodka). When asked, Mr. Shuckman did not care to calculate the cost of his hospitality.
Article and photography ©2003 New York Times. All rights reserved.
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